Growing up my mother displayed some impressive skills and characteristics while setting a great example of how to successfully be a working mom before it was en vogue. Unfortunately, one of those skills was not cooking. And ironically? My mom can cook. Sadly, she detests cooking and found creative ways to keep us fed. I recall giving her a greeting card one year for Mother’s Day that thanked her for teaching me the four food groups: drive thru, microwave meals, mac-n-cheese, and take out. All kidding aside, we did have real meals that I didn’t appreciate because what kid likes tuna casserole or pot roast (still not a fan, by the way)? I ate a lot of cereal.
So, while I’m more than capable (well, most of the time!) of handling the expectations of a working mother, I am lacking one key skill: cooking! In all honestly, I too can cook. I just didn’t grow up learning the art of cooking; and it truly is an art.
In fact, all I feel about cooking is stress. You have to get the materials and ingredients together, have a game plan for how to prepare each item in the meal, properly cook multiple things at one time and then hope they all have the right ingredients and come out at the same time – all while entertaining toddlers who know this is the absolute BEST time to do everything they shouldn’t do.
I don’t hate cooking. I just don’t find it relaxing or enjoyable especially when I’ve got two little ones distracting me and a limited window to get food prepared and on the table before the bedtime ritual begins. Also, the hubs loves to cook and would gladly do it every night, but his job offers limited time to plan and prepare meals.
Lately, in my spare time – you know, surfing on my phone while standing in line or eating my lunch – I’ve been trying to find quick, easy and healthy meals that are tasty but not processed. At first I was frustrated and then completely amused by some of the “quick and easy” meals I Googled. First of all, if the meal requires chopping, dicing, a blender/food processor, and multiple pots/pans, it is not quick or easy!
Keep in mind that non-cooks might not be great at some of those basic skills but in addition, we don’t want to manage a huge mess of dishes in the end either, especially when there are lunches and bottles to be made, baths to give and books to read. And for those of you who find two or more hours on the weekend to prep all these freezer meals, I applaud you. If I get a few extra hours on the weekend, I’m usually napping with my kids.
In the end, I’ve come to the conclusion that I have to get better at planning meals each week and accepting that cooking a protein, veggie and starch is OK; boring, but acceptable. I don’t have to find creative recipes that require too much thought or talent in the kitchen and it is ok if my meals aren’t made from scratch.
So here are some of the tips and tools I’ve leveraged in my nightly Dinner Dash:
- Be realistic and be real: This isn’t a competition and your kids won’t know that little Miss Muffet’s mom made pancakes that look like Mickey Mouse and yours look like they were sat on by Goofy. Are they edible? Done! Feeding your kiddos chicken nuggets, macaroni and broccoli every night? Are they eating? Triumph! It is also A-OK if you can’t afford the time or money to buy organic, fresh ingredients and chop, dice or even slice them without risk of injury. I got you. Frozen veggies are just as healthy as fresh veggies – and better than NO veggies! (#truth!) – and they come in a fabulous assortment that can be steamed right in the bag. Now we’re talking! We’re all about Frozen in our house. Fresh? Let it go! Finally, it is absolutely fine to repeat the same meals each week. Who didn’t grow up having pot roast one night and tuna casserole the next (and never makes them now as a result?!)? If it is easy and the family eats it, win-win!
- Plan, plan, plan: This is something hard to do when life at times seems short on structure (and time) and big on chaos; but if you can find the discipline to make it a habit to spend 15 to 20 minutes each weekend planning your week of meals, you’ll find dinner does not have to be a part of the chaos. I used to get frustrated because I’d find all these meal planning sites and the meals were NOT easy and the grocery lists were extensive and expensive (where do these folks get their money?). Then I stumbled across MomsBistro.net which provides one of the easiest, “I can even do this” jump-start tools for making meal planning doable: The 7 Day Budget Friendly Family Menu Plan. I still found some of her suggested meals too time consuming, so I did some additional Pinterest searching for meals that really suited me (and my commitment/skill level) and my family; but her tips and templates offered a great starting point.My menu for this week:
- Monday: Tomato soup, grilled cheese, green beans (frozen)
Tuesday: Crock Pot Savory Chicken and Tomatoes, rice and broccoli (both frozen)
Wednesday: Pasta, chicken sausage, peppers medley (frozen) and marinara from a jar
Thursday: Turkey Sloppy Joes, microwave potatoes and broccoli (we love those lil trees!)
Friday: Frozen Pizzas
- Monday: Tomato soup, grilled cheese, green beans (frozen)
- Stock up: Ensure your freezer has at least two easy throw in the oven/microwave meals for those nights when no matter how hard you try life just isn’t cooperating. I do look for healthier, less processed options that I also know my kids will eat. A few that we’ve tried with success include Blake’s Chicken Pot Pie, Kashi Thin Crust Pizza Margherita, Amy’s Mexican Casserole, and Annie’s Family Size Frozen Butternut Squash Macaroni & Cheese.
- Get creative: This goes along with the “Be Realistic and be real” point. If a recipe calls for chopped veggies, grab a bag of frozen chopped veggies. I’ve done this numerous times with great success. Who says you can’t have breakfast for dinner? When you cook bacon in the oven (best trick EVER!), it limits time and mess. For that matter, who says you can’t have lunch for dinner? I’ll gladly throw together BLT or grilled cheese sandwiches and soup with a side of… wait for it… frozen steam in-the-bag veggies!
- Delivery/Take-out: This could fall under “Be Realistic and be real” as well, but I want to make it a point to remind you that eating out from time to time is not that bad. Again, this isn’t a competition; you aren’t being judged and isn’t it just incredible to have nothing to do when you get home but unpack, serve, eat and toss? No cooking. No dishes. No problems!
Embrace your Crock -Pot: It’s no crock; there really is an Easy Bake Oven for mamas. Purchase liners to help with the cleaning (cooking spray works wonders too) and then throw in some frozen ingredients and by the time you get home, voila, dinner is served! Ok, so maybe you need to heat up some rice or veggies, but you know my secret to that: frozen steam in-the-bag! BAM! This is by far the easiest, tastiest Crock-Pot recipe I’ve made to date (and my toddlers gobbled it up!): Savory Chicken and Tomatoes (4 frozen chicken breasts, a can of stewed tomatoes, Garlic, Thyme, Parsley – that’s it!); I steamed some broccoli and rice and dinner was served. Brilliant!
All in all, remember your main goal is to feed your family a simple meal with limited stress and mess. Instead of getting caught up in creating gourmet meals that covered all the food groups and my kitchen in one holy heck of a mess – SMH at the memory! – I now focus on being realistic. There are still nights that the Dinner Dash returns, but thank goodness delivery/take out is an acceptable option.
What tips, tools and recipes have helped you survive the Dinner Dash?